Mario Mandzukic has been one of the most accomplished strikers of this decade. Even though he hasn’t got as many goals as some other illustrious names, Mandzukic’s importance reaches far beyond just goalscoring.
Currently frozen out at Juventus, Mandzukic isn’t in a favourable position. The Croatian hasn’t played even once for the bianconeri in any competition, as moves away failed in the summer. The current situation though, does undermine what he has done for the club over the last four years.
Since joining from Atletico Madrid for a fee of £13.6 million, Mandzukic was hardly seen as a long-term capture. At the age of 29, he was expected to be the first-choice target man at a club that played pragmatic football under Massimiliano Allegri.
In his first season, Mandzukic was a regular alongside Paulo Dybala in Allegri’s 3-5-2 shape. Carlos Tevez had left for Boca Juniors, while Fernando Llorente left for Sevilla. Because of that, Mandzukic wasn’t just a goalscorer. He was the battling fighter that the club had lost in Llorente and Tevez.
He made 27 appearances that season in the Serie A, scoring ten times. More than that, Mandzukic’s fire stood out. He had a passion for the game that Allegri liked. He had a workrate that made him a favourite.
That aided him when Gonzalo Higuain joined from Napoli in the summer of 2016. Any other striker would have found himself on the bench, in this case. Higuain was brought in for £75.3 million and was set to be Dybala’s strike partner.
That did happen. But Allegri changed the shape to a 4-3-3 to accommodate Mandzukic on the left-wing. Knowing that the Croatian had played there during his time in Germany, Allegri’s move was hailed as a masterclass.
Mandzukic scored only 11 times in all competitions that season. But his workrate helped Juve become a very reliable side defensively. He would press the opposition from the left and track back when needed. He allowed the Old Lady to be pragmatic as well, acting as the wide target-man for the club.
The pragmatism this approach added saw Juve reach the final of the Champions League. Mandzukic caught the world’s eye by scoring a stunning overhead in the final against Real Madrid. Even though Juve lost 4-1, Mandzukic’s value had become clear to everyone.
In the 2017-18 season Mandzukic donned the same role. His ability to work extra ground helped a flair player in Dybala thrive, even though the former Atleti man scored only ten times in all competitions that campaign.
Dybala on the other hand, scored 22 times. He reached his highest-ever goals tally that season.
Last season, many thought Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival would see the end of Mandzukic. But it saw Higuain get a loan move to Milan instead. It was a show of faith and a sign of how much Allegri trusted Mandzukic.
The 33-year-old scored some crucial goals in Allegri’s last season. Seven of the nine goals he scored in the league came against the top six or seven sides in the Serie A. He scored against Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Roma and Atalanta.
After Juve’s 1-0 win over Roma, Allegri heaped praise on Mandzukic and his completeness (via AS).
“Mario is a key player. His combination of technical and physical attributes make him an extraordinary player.”
Three separate injuries never helped him. But Mandzukic always made an impact when he played. As he did in the FIFA World Cup for Croatia last year.
He scored crucial goals against Denmark in the Round of 16 and against England in the semi-finals. While his goal against France in the final was down to Hugo Lloris’ error, the amount of ground Mandzukic managed to cover for the goal was impressive. All that, when his country was 4-1 down in a World Cup final.
As of now, it is sad that Mandzukic has been sidelined. For someone who has proved many critics wrong and had done so much silently for Juve, it isn’t the best situation. But Maurizio Sarri’s preference for more technical players is justified, considering his system.
He might not be playing now, but Mandzukic’s contributions to Juve should not be overshadowed by this bland period. He deserves so much more.